Bill Kintner: What is different now about the NCAA selection process? I know they made public how they do it, or at least the RPI this year.
Joe Lunardi: I don’t think they made public how they do it. They made public their own RPI. As it turns out they have even more data entry errors than the people who replicate it and those who have been doing it on their own for a number of years have actually been correcting them as the season has gone along. I don’t think transparency is a bad thing. I think it is going to become clear that the RPI really is a broad-based tool and not a rank me one-to-65 tool.
BK: Walk through the process of what the selection committee does to pick the 65 teams.
JL: They are really picking 34 teams. The 31 conference winners are automatic qualifiers. So their job is regardless of conference affiliation, past history, star players and successful history, is to pick the 34 best teams after the 31 automatic qualifiers. There is a number of ways of identifying them. Certainly you are looking for teams that play quality competition, teams that win on the road, teams that are hot at the end of the year and teams that don’t have injury or suspension issues. I give the committee a lot of credit for making a much greater attempt to go to games. I have seen many committee members at games in the last two or three years that I have not in other years. They are almost all former coaches, athletic directors and people who have been around the game and can tell a tournament team from a non-tournament team.
BK: Are they going out of their way to see bubble teams like Butler or Miami?
JL: Yes they are not just showing up at Carolina/Duke. I talked to committee members who tell me that they get home from their day jobs and every night watch two or three games. They take it very seriously, they study the reports that come from individual schools. (In a very deep, authoritative voice) I think they may even pay attention to people like us a little bit, who try to mimic what they do.
BK: You listed the criteria they are using. Do they stick with it during the selection process.
JL: I think it is much more objective than it used to be than when I got started at this 10 years ago. In part, because there are more objective ways of evaluating teams than there used to be. The RPI is one tool to try and look through and really measure your opponents. For example, a team like George Washington here in our league, if they had won this tournament 10 years ago that 29-1 record would have sat there and they would have been a one or two seed. But now we know that they never proved it. They still haven’t beaten a team that is going to be in the tournament until the automatic bid winner here is determined and that is why they will be a four, five or six and not a one, two or three. I think there is a lot more accountability now and the scrutiny of the work of the committee has made them sharper. I know that they are sensitive about being able to defend their selections, as opposed to closing the secret door and make their selections in secret.
BK: How about the NIT? Are you up on how the NIT is selecting teams this year.
JL: We know what they published, we really don’t know what they are going to do. We are told they are going to seed teams one-to-40. Then give the top 24 a bye and seed, select and pair. Than means if you are in the top half of the bracket you will get a home game and if you are in the bottom half of the bracket you are going to get a road game all the way through to New York. It would lead you to think they are going to use NCAA Tournament criteria and simply pick the next 40 teams. Let’s say the 40 that just missed being selected. They have added their own automatic qualifier for teams that win the conference regular season and lose in their conference tournament. That has never been a criteria before and I think that is an outstanding idea. They are also going to allow losing teams in, those with records under .500 into the tournament which I think is a bad idea. If you can’t get to .500, even if you played the Lakers 30 times you have not earned a post-season berth. It will be interesting to see how they break it out and break it down and how much of this is just going to be more home games for power conference teams for power conference teams to cash in. We just don’t know yet.
BK: Describe for me when you start putting all this information together to do your bracket predictions?
JL: Well the last couple of days has not been a good representation of that……….
BK: I know that you start real early on your predictions.
JL: That is because people want to read it early. I mean, last year I was in New York for the NIT finals ESPN wanted me to go on the air and say who next years NCAA teams would be.
BK: Do you really know what you are doing or just guessing?
JL: I do the best I can with what I have. I did get probably three of the four number one seeds for this year back then. So maybe it wasn’t such a bad exercise.
BK: What do you do to prepare to make you projections?
JL: During the off season I don’t do anything. In fact, I try to clear my entire memory bank. If you walked up to me in July and said, “How about that battle for the last at-large bid?” I would be in another World. I am into the beach, golf and leaving work early.
BK: And your family?
JL; And my kids and wife! Oh absolutely they are ready for me to come home. I may have to use Map Quest to get home. I read the same preseason publications as everybody else. I talk to some coaches, media and by November I am going to be juiced and ready to go. I will do an early season bracket and then I will start getting serious in January. This year after the Super Bowl we will start updating it twice a week because of automation. The internet has made that possible. As soon as we are done I will go back to the hotel and crunch today games and numbers to try to have an intelligent bracket up in the morning.
BK: Based on where the season is right now, give me some tips as to what we can expect.
JL: I think we are getting down near the end here where maybe there are eight or 10 teams for three or four spots. That is pretty typical. By this time tomorrow night, there will maybe be one or two spots up for grabs, if any, depending on who makes the finals of these other conference championships. There are four, actually five championships on Sunday now that the Sourthland Conference plays theirs on Sunday for reasons that are beyond me. It may be just be more working out the seeds. Saturday is the day when the bubble decisions are made. I think the last couple of teams in will wind up being maybe Seton Hall, maybe another Missouri Valley team.
BK: Now that you are a regular on ESPN, how often are you recognized when you are out somewhere?
JL: In an arena I am recognized a lot. I went to a game at Southern Illinois in January. We ( St. Joe’s) were in St. Louis and it was just a little over an hour away, so I went down to see what was going on in the Missouri Valley Conference. I was treated like a rock star. I signed autographs, they chanted my name and put me on the local news.
BK: You have established yourself as the doctor of bracketology so what is next for you?
JL: Hmmm……….going back to work on Tuesday? I have lived almost every sport-media fantasy that I could have had. On Sunday at five PM they are going to do an hour of bracketology on ESPN and it is going to be my picks and what they mean. I don’t know if I could take it to a higher level, short of being the chairman of the selection committee, in that case you would be my vice-chairman.
BK: That is a nice place to end this interview. Thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule to chat.
JL: It was a pleasure.